Pulling down statues is a form of protest with a long and varied history. When I hear of a statue or other public monument being destroyed I either cheer or am appalled. I was horrified by the wanton crass destruction of the Buddhas of Banyan by the Taliban in 2001. I was uplifted by the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The former was an expression of hate and cruelty, the latter the action of a people who had been repressed for decades, literally breaking down the wall that held them back.
I love history, and I love being surrounded by ancient things. One of the few things I prefer about England to Finland is the way properly old buildings are still littered about. Visiting places like the USA and Australia, it feels like the culture hasn’t had time to sink into the landscape. Everything sits on the surface. In Italy you can see towns and countryside than appear mostly unchanged for five hundred years.
I love that, but it isn’t necessarily a good thing. If we never tore down anything, there would be no change, no growth. And most of the old buildings I love so much are built on the ruins of an older building that got torn down to make way for the shiny new state-of-the-art castle that’s now centuries old.
I’m never in favour of destroying a work of art, but as I see it there is nothing intrinsically right or wrong with preserving or removing a work of art from a public place. It really depends on what that thing represents, and what it is replaced with. The question I ask myself whenever I hear about a statue being pulled down is this: is it more like Banyan, or Berlin?
Edward Colston was a slave trader, Deputy Governor of the Royal African Company, the British Imperial slave trading company (yes, the British state traded slaves, and made a fortune out of it). He was also a local philanthropist, founding schools, almshouses and so on, using the money he made out of the most profound human misery to reduce misery in the town he lived in. It’s the latter part that’s the justification for a statue of him in Bristol. By the standards of his time he’d earned a statue, no question, though it was only erected in 1895, over 170 years after he died.
But imagine the outcry if someone tried to erect a statue of Colston today. The protesters that tore it down and threw it in the canal were doing so to make the clearest possible statement that keeping Colston on his pedestal is not consistent with the values we hold now.
I imagine that black people having to walk past a statue of Colston on their way to work would be similar to a Jewish person having to walk past a statue of Goebbels every day. A very clear statement that the powers-that-be where you live are quite comfortable with the history of the enslavement and murder of people like you. I’m just surprised that Colston stood so long, and him being thrown in the canal is clearly towards the Berlin end of my scale.
Likewise, in the USA we see statues erected to Confederate heroes, who fought bravely to prevent the freedom of their slaves. Really, what’s more important? Their bravery or their stated goals? Tearing down the statue doesn’t change the history, it’s a statement about how we view that history.
We erect monuments to the people we revere. We literally put them on a pedestal. No human being actually deserves a pedestal- every saint was a sinner, and nobody has a long and successful life without making mistakes. But this is not about holding historical figures unfairly to modern standards of good behaviour. Pretty much every historical figure would fail that test. It is about what historical figures we choose to put on a pedestal because their contributions outweigh their flaws and they can reasonably be held up as examples.
In a perfect world nobody would vandalise statues because in a perfect world nobody would erect statues to slave traders. Or, as morals changed, historical figures whose cons come to outweigh their pros would have their statues taken down as soon as they were no longer a figure to be looked up to. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and so it takes acts of protest to do what should have been done already. In that same perfect world, the statue of Colston would have been removed long ago and placed in a museum (because it has cultural and artistic significance, and he was extremely influential in the history of Bristol) with a full and fair description of his life, the evil and the good. Or perhaps been put in a “statue park of people we don’t like any more”, such as Coronation Park outside Delhi became after Indian independence. But that did not happen, and so the people took matters into their own hands. Museums can handle nuance, historicity, the full story, and preserve artefacts from every kind of culture. Public monuments ought to represent only the ideals of the public they serve.